Elon Musk’s space venture SpaceX prepares for its first manned mission: to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch, which is expected to occur in nine days, “will return human spaceflight to the US since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011,” says the company.
Founded in 2002 with the lofty goal of colonizing Mars, SpaceX has built an impressive curriculum in its 18-year history. SpaceX became the first private company to launch and recover a spacecraft in 2010, to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2012 and the first to launch, recover and reuse a rocket in 2017. The company will reach another milestone in May 27 when it launches two NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the ISS. This launch is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative from the US federal agency to partner with private companies to develop cost-effective travel measures to the ISS and other low-Earth orbit destinations.
The launch, which will be Dragon’s second demonstrating mission (Demo-2), will also test SpaceX’s entire crew transportation systems. The astronauts will travel on Dragon, a free-flying spacecraft designed to carry up to seven people or cargo to orbiting destinations and to return them to Earth. In March 2019, Dragon performed its first mission carrying cargo to the ISS. Dragon will be launched by Falcon 9, a two-stage reusable rocket designed by SpaceX that is currently used to deliver cargo to the ISS and to place satellites in orbit in compliance with NASA. In May 13, the two astronauts began their isolation period in preparation for the flight.
The mission is only one of many that SpaceX is simultaneously undertaking. The company also plans to launch 60 Starlinks broadband satellites this Tuesday, May 19. The launch, which was initially planned for the past Sunday had to be postponed due to a tropical storm. These satellites will test the experimental VisorSat, a mechanism that aims to reduce the brightness of satellites by keeping sunlight from being reflected off the spacecraft. SpaceX has performed numerous launches of commercial satellites for broadband communications and at one point showed interest in performing these services for Mexican companies. SpaceX was also instrumental in the launch of AzTechSat-1, the first fully Mexican satellite launched in December 2019. The satellite was fully developed by Mexican students from Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP) to test satellite-to-satellite communications. The launch marks a success for the collaboration between NASA and the Mexican Space Agency.
Demo-2 marks another step forward for the company. Once complete, SpaceX and NASA are planning the company’s first six-month operational mission with a four-astronaut crew.